Q & A with: Cary Somers from Fashion Revolution

April 15, 2019

Cover of the Surface Design Journal, graphic image courtesy of Fashion Revolution

This year marks your fifth anniversary at Fashion Revolution. How have reactions to your organization changed from the time of your initial launch to today?
Fashion Revolution has sparked a global conversation about the social and environmental issues facing the fashion industry. We have been particularly successful at engaging the public in these issues and giving them tangible ways to become part of the solution. We have helped citizens recognize that everyone can use their voices and power to transform the fashion industry. The reaction to the first #whomademyclothes campaign was, frankly, astonishing. I had expected it to galvanize some interest in the UK, but had never anticipated having teams in 62 countries within a year and becoming the number one trending hashtag on Twitter! Five years on, we have proved that we aren’t just a hashtag campaign, underpinning our communications strategy with solid research, such as our work on the Fashion Transparency Index and the Garment Worker Diaries. We have proved ourselves to be a credible, collaborative, creative movement which is here to stay.

I think that when most people think of sweatshops they immediately think of places like Bangladesh or China, but how prevalent are dangerous manufacturing and unfair labor conditions in Britain and the U.S.?

According to IndustriALL Global Union, over 90% of workers in the global garment industry have no possibility to negotiate their wages and conditions. Furthermore, foreign and migrant workers, and sub-contractors have the least bargaining power since they have indirect relationships with the brands. These workers often don’t even know who employs them. Unfair labour conditions and subcontracting can be found all around the world, and that includes the US and Britain. A Channel 4 dispatches programme found garment workers in Leicester in were being paid less than half the minimum wage, with no union representation and no contracts in a factory which was subcontracting to another factory with a contract to supply well-known British brands. Someone told me of their visit to a small workshop in London where the conditions of the workers were ‘worse than anything I have seen in Bangladesh’.

I feel like the most difficult hurdle in a fashion revolution is to change the mindset of people who habitually purchase garments in large quantities. How do we break through the societal mindset of consumerism to break those shopping habits?

In the 2017 Fashion Transparency Index, while a few brands were reporting initiatives to collect, recycle or donate used clothing, overall brands do not disclose many substantive efforts to address the problem of overconsumption. This is why we need to educate consumers on the impact of their clothing purchases and ways in which they can fill their wardrobes in a more responsible way through your #haulternative and Love Story challenges. Our second fanzine, published in October 2017, is called Loved Clothes Lastand addresses the issue of mass consumption, clothing and textile waste, recycling and circular fashion, and how to make the clothes you love last longer.

Change is possible. There is a huge body of evidence which shows that people can radically transform their behaviour or beliefs in the face of the right kind of impetus. Most of the public is still not aware that human and environmental abuses are endemic across the fashion and textiles industry and that what they’re wearing could have been made in an exploitative way. The negative impacts of unsustainable production may not be localised or currently visible, but they will ultimately have an impact on our world. As consumers, we have the right to know that the money we spend buying new clothes is not supporting exploitation, human rights abuses and environmental destruction.

Fashion Revolution shows the faces behind the garments in their “I Made Your Clothes” campaign. Image courtesy of Fashion Revolution.

How are you working with fashion corporations to slow down their garment turnaround cycles? Have there been positive responses?
In April 2018 we will launch the third edition of the Fashion Transparency Index, ranking 150 of the world’s largest brands and retailers. By publishing the Fashion Transparency Index, our aim is to provide insight into just how much or how little consumers know about the clothes they buy. In the 2017 Fashion Transparency Index, while a few brands were reporting initiatives to collect, recycle or donate used clothing, overall brands do not disclose many substantive efforts to address the problem of overconsumption. Only a few are reporting initiatives to collect, recycle or donate used clothing. Only three brands — Burberry, Gucci and Levi Strauss — were promoting repair services in order to extend the life of its products, while just 14 brands disclose investments in circular resources with the aim of keeping materials in perpetual use and out of landfills. We are seeing some progress: 142 brands representing 7.5% of the global fashion market have recently signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, which sets out four key targets to increase increase textile recycling.  It is a start, but more needs to happen, and faster.  Systemic change and a disruption of the current fashion cycle is still a long way off.

The manufacturing process has a highly detrimental environmental impact, have you seen any progress with manufacturers using recycled fibers?
In our Fashion Transparency Index, not one brand or retailer is publishing a list of raw material suppliers, so there is no way of knowing where their cotton, wool, leather or other fibres come from, who produces them, and whether the production process is sustainable. There are many exciting innovations happening at the moment around raw materials, from the development of new, bio-based textiles made from waste materials or grown in the laboratory to innovations in fibre recycing technology. Closed loop fibre to fibre recycling which separates natural fibres from synthetics with no loss of quality is becoming a reality and when this is rolled out I am confident we will see uptake at scale within the industry.

Looking at the fashion industry as a whole, the sheer scale of oversaturation is overwhelming. As I think about how many livelihoods are invested in the hamster wheel of fashion manufacturing, I wonder how consuming less will effect worldwide employment. How do you see that balance?

The growing automation of garment factories will probably impact jobs far more than reduced consumption. Jobs will change in the next decade but they won’t disappear. Look at the Industrial Revolution in Britain, for example, when everyone thought their jobs would be replaced by machines – this didn’t happen and the mills and factories employed people in large numbers. Once fibre to fibre recycling technology becomes mainstream, the speed of consumption becomes less of an issue. The onus is then on us, as consumers, to ensure we correctly recycle all textile waste to feed into the closed loop system.

What are your projections for the garment manufacturing industry within the next 10 years? Do you think a sea change can take place in that short of a time frame, or is it a longer end game?
Despite some progress since the Rana Plaza collapse, so much remains hidden within the fashion supply chain, largely due to its scale and complexity. There has been progress in some areas, such as the publication of factory lists, but it will take longer than 10 years to change many aspects of the industry.

Five years since Rana Plaza, hundreds of factories in Bangladesh have made been made safer. The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety is a significant milestone towards better working conditions in Bangladesh, and hopefully throughout the industry. However, last year in Bangladesh 426 people died in 321 workplace accidents. I visited the Savar tanneries in November and was shocked at seeing the environmental pollution, young labour and non-existant health and safety. Several factory owners reported to me that they were receiving 2-5% less for their orders every year, yet have to cover an increase in their wage bill each year and still have to meet the high cost of remediation to ensure their factories are compliant. In our Garment Worker Diaries project we found that many workers are earning less than the legal minimum wage, working over the legal maximum working hours, subjected to verbal abuse at work and live in regular financial strain to afford life’s basic necessities.

Overall it is clear that, while some progress has been made around the health and safety of workers, not enough has changed, and change is not happening fast enough. Most companies are still operating in broadly the same way that enabled the Rana Plaza disaster to occur five years ago, relying on auditing for basic legal compliance.

We want to see brands, and retailers taking more responsibility for the people and communities on which their business depends. Whilst more brands are starting to publish data on their social and environmental efforts, which is welcome and necessary, there is still much crucial information about the practices of the fashion industry that remains concealed, particularly when it comes to brands’ tangible impact on the lives of workers in the supply chain and on the environment. Many brands are simply failing to take steps to ensure their policies are put into practice. Tragedies like Rana Plaza are preventable, but they will continue to happen until every stakeholder in the fashion supply chain is responsible and accountable for their actions and impacts.

A huge thank you to Carry Somers for taking the time to answer my many questions. Head over to Fashion Revolution to learn more about their organization and how you can get involved. To  read my full article on The Transparent Fashion Revolution, learn more and join the Surface Design Association

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